‘I guess we’re just supposed to starve’ – laid-off Myanmar migrants denied wages and trapped by Thailand lockdown

Zin Mar Hlaing was working at a garment factory in the suburbs of Bangkok last year when overtime cuts halved her monthly income from 600,000 kyat (about $430) to 300,000 kyat.

Then the Covid-19 pandemic hit.

Last month the factory – which employed more than 500 people – closed down, leaving the 33-year-old Bago region native with no income and little savings.

Myanmar shut its border with Thailand on March 30 amid fears it would be unable to manage a coronavirus outbreak among returning migrants.

Zin Mar Hlaing had planned to come home on April 15, when border crossings were due to reopen, but just days before her departure the government extended the closures until the end of the month.

Myanmar has now opened some border crossings, but Zin Mar Hlaing and tens of thousands of others in her situation are still unable to return. Thailand has barred interprovincial travel through the end of May, even for migrants trying to get to land crossings to go home.

When Zin Mar Hlaing’s factory closed, she lost out on 5,950 Thai baht, or about $185, that she was owed for hours she’d already worked, she told Myanmar Now.

Now she’s stuck in a dormitory in Bangkok with almost no money, trying to get back to her hometown of Nyaung Lay Pin.

She’s sold her jewelry but still can’t pay rent.

“The landlord’s been taking it out of my security deposit, but now the deposit is gone too,” she said.

Many others like her are owed for hours they worked just before the shutdown. And many more are unable to claim social security benefits they should be entitled to, advocates say.

“I’m struggling just to feed myself,” Zin Mar Hlaing said. “The quicker I can get home the better.”


In 2018 Thailand attracted 3.9 million migrant workers from across southeast Asia, according to the International Organization of Migration.

Officially, at least 2.3 million of them came from Myanmar. But labour groups, including the Myanmar labour attache’s office in Thailand, think the real number is closer to 3 million – or about 75% of Thailand’s foreign workforce – once undocumented workers are counted.

State counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi said in a Facebook Live broadcast late last month that her government expected about 100,000 to return amid the pandemic from jobs in Thailand and Malaysia.

As of May 7, some 27,000 had registered with the Myanmar labour attache’s office in Thailand saying they wanted to come home. But representatives from the aid group Migrant Workers Rights Network (MWRN) told Myanmar Now there are likely as many as 50,000.

Without incomes, a patchwork of migrant aid groups are trying to help them make ends meet, either until factories reopen or migrants can make it back home – but aid groups are finding themselves stretched thin.

MWRN is helping about 600 with food assistance, said Sein Htay, the group’s secretary.

The Aid Alliance Committee (AAC), another migrant aid group, has been feeding and housing about 100 out-of-work migrants, including pregnant women.

By the second half of April the group was helping about 1,500 migrants apply for unemployment benefits from the Thai government, AAC’s director Khaing Gyi told Myanmar Now.

Dormitory fees start at around 1,000 baht ($31) a month and food costs about 2,500 baht for the month, on top of which residents must pay utilities, according to interviews with migrants.

Sein Htay called on the Thai and Myanmar governments to work together to help workers return home and to take care of their basic needs in the meantime.

He cautioned that the support now coming from charities and labour organisations – already insufficient for the scale of the problem – cannot last.

Lost Wages

To make matters worse, factory owners are taking advantage of the pandemic to hold wages from hours migrants worked right before factories closed, said Moe Way, a spokesperson for the Foundation for Education and Development – another migrant aid group.

Aung Htay, 38, lost his job at an auto parts factory in Bang Chalong, southeast of Bangkok, in late April.

He and 173 other migrants from Myanmar were abruptly fired, he said.

“When we demanded our wages they said we could complain all we like but we weren’t getting paid,” he told Myanmar Now from his dormitory in Bang Chalong.

Aung Htay said he doesn’t want to go back to his home in Mon state, where there’s also no work. He’d rather wait out the shutdowns in Thailand and return to work.

But in the meantime, he said, “we’re running out of food.”

Khaing Gyi said he’s in talks with workers, employment agencies and the Thai labour ministry about restoring jobs for migrants, but no one can predict when work might resume.

“Some of them don’t want to go home because they don’t want to lose jobs. But when things finally get difficult, the Thai government is not going to be able to help them,” he said. “They’ll return home whether they like it or not when they realise the Myanmar embassy can’t do anything either.”

Myanmar migrant workers are seen in Thailand’s Samut Sakhon province in September 2019, before the Covid-19 pandemic swept across the globe. (Photo: Tin Htet Paing/ Myanmar Now)

Social Security

One thing that would help stranded migrants get by is the social security benefits they are entitled to under Thai law, labour advocates say.

Normally, unemployment covers half of a migrant worker’s wages for up to six months if they are laid off and 30% of their wages for up to three months if they quit.

But new emergency measures mean that if a company shuts down because of the Covid-19 pandemic, migrant workers are entitled to 62% of their wages for up to 90 days.

They are supposed to receive that payment immediately, said Myo Myint Naing, Myanmar’s labour attache in Thailand.

Of the 10 migrant workers Myanmar Now spoke to, however, only three had registered for social security.

Most said they did not know what benefits they were entitled to or how to apply for them.

According to Myo Myint Naing, there were just 80 cases of Myanmar migrant workers filing for unemployment in Thailand in March and April. (One case can represent multiple workers applying at once.)

“Sometimes we can help, but not in the cases we don’t know about,” he said.

Thura Aung quit his construction job in Pran Buri, south of Bangkok, on March 25, hoping to return home once the border reopened. But with transportation restricted, he’s been stuck in his dormitory.

He hasn’t applied for unemployment, he said, because he doesn’t understand the process.

Further complicating things is that applications must be filled out in Thai, according to Khaing Gyi. Plus, he said, many don’t know when they should expect to receive payments, or if they’ll still be in Thailand then.

“Without knowing when they’ll be paid, they have to just go home,” he said.

Zin Mar Hlaing and Aung Htay have both filed for unemployment with the Thai government but have yet to hear back.

Employment agencies, labour activists and even the labour attache’s office primarily share information and talk to workers through Facebook, but some criticise this reliance on social media.

“Fake information circulates on Facebook, so workers are left to figure out themselves what’s correct and what isn’t,” said Sein Htay.

Khaing Gyi thinks the Myanmar embassy, the labour attache and the Myanmar Overseas Employment Agencies Federation should work with the Thai government to translate and distribute instructions on getting the help they need.

“At the very least, they should do this in this emergency,” he said.

Back home

Despite the restrictions, tens of thousands of migrants have made it back into Myanmar.

More than 37,000 workers returned through border crossings in Myawaddy, Tachileik, Payathonzu and Kaw Thaung between March 22 and April 2, township administrators and immigration officials told Myanmar Now at the time.

After Myanmar announced border closures on March 30, they allowed some migrants already at border crossings to enter up until April 2. Others entered through illegal crossings.

Myanmar began accepting returning migrants through Myawaddy at the start of this month but by May 13 only about 399 had entered.

Border crossings have also opened at Tachileik and Kaw Thaung.

Kayin and Mon state authorities told Myanmar Now that transit vehicles, quarantine sites and enough food to last a 21-day quarantine are ready for up to 20,000 returnees at the Myawaddy crossing.

But with little money and travel inside of Thailand restricted, many remain stuck.

The government has brought 202 Myanmar citizens home in two separate Myanmar International Airline relief flights from Thailand so far in May, though none of them were migrant workers. Instead they were in Thailand on student, tourist or medical visas.

Thura Aung, stuck in his dorm room south of Bangkok, wants to get home before his visa runs out. He can’t keep up with the constantly changing policies, he said, and the labour attache’s office is not answering his phone calls.

“I guess we’re just supposed to sit here and starve,” he said.

Translated by Htet Aung Lwyn.

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